Media Images of Women: Size Counts

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
July/August 2005 Volume 16, Number 4
©2005 Gürze Books

Exposure to images of attractive thin female models can increase depression, guilt, shame, stress, and anger and body dissatisfaction in women at risk for developing eating disorders. Two University of Kentucky researchers recently tested a theory that women at risk of eating disorders who are exposed to attractive, average-weight models would have less expectation of reinforcement from thinness than would other women (Pathology of Addictive Behavior 2005;18:394).

Drs. Suzannah M. Fister and Gregory T. Smith used their theory in a study of 276 Caucasian college women (mean body mass index: 22). Before the study began, the women completed pretest questionnaires, including the Sociocultural Attitudes Towards Appearance (internalization subscale, or SATAQ) (Int J Eat Disord 1995; 17:81) and the Eating Disorders Inventory-2 (body dissatisfaction and drive for thinness subscales). Shortly afterward they were approached to participate in the current study, which they thought was an investigation of “personality and shopping.” Before the experimental manipulation, the women were asked to indicate their clothing size, height, and weight. Then the women were randomly assigned to one of three image-viewing groups (thin, average weight, and control). In groups of 4, the women viewed a set of 10 images, spending a minute on each. While viewing, they completed the questionnaire, which was designed to encourage them to pay attention to and to compare themselves with the images. They also rated the models’ attractiveness and perceived clothing size.

What the women saw

The women exposed to images of thin models and those exposed to images of average-weight models rated the two model groups similarly. However, ratings of clothing size did differ by condition: thin models were judged to have significantly smaller clothing sizes than were average-weight models

In both the control and thin model conditions, there was a strong relationship between initial risk status of the participants and subsequent expectation of thinness. In contrast, for women exposed to attractive, average-weight models, the association was much less. Even one exposure to images of women who did not correspond to the thin ideal reduced high-risk women’s expectancies. The exposure to only 10 images of attractive average-weight women undermined high-risk women’s propensity to believe that thinness leads to overgeneralized self-improvement.

The authors noted that popular media could actually provide a positive health learning experience by showing attractive but not overly thin images of women. If seeing just a few images of normal-weight women had such an effect upon women at risk of eating disorders, imagine what repeated exposure to normal-sized images in the media could produce. Ironically, when Glamour, which is one of the largest-circulation women’s magazines, tried to use more average-sized models, fewer women bought the magazine.

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